Ryan Lizza, politics writer for The New Yorker magazine, said Monday that he pretty much knew right away last week, as soon as he hung up the phone with Anthony Scaramucci, that he had a big story on his hands.
He did not know, he told a lecture hall full of people at College of the Atlantic, that Scaramucci’s tenure at communications director for President Donald Trump would last only a few more days. News of Scaramucci’s firing broke Monday afternoon only a couple of hours before Lizza’s planned appearance at the Bar Harbor college.
He said he had gotten to know Scaramucci during last year’s presidential campaign, when the investment banker was in Trump’s “orbit” and the two often talked about the candidate. For those talks, Lizza said, they had mutually agreed-upon ground rules about what portions of their conversation Lizza could use in his reporting.
But the phone call last Wednesday was different because Scaramucci initiated the call, Scaramucci was acting in an official capacity, and Scaramucci never suggested or hinted that any part of what he was about to say should be off the record, Lizza said.
In the conversation, Scaramucci threatened to fire the entire White House communications staff, said he would get the FBI and Department of Justice to investigate former Trump Chief of Staff Reince Priebus over the release of Scaramucci’s financial disclosure form (which actually is a public document), and used vulgar terms to insult Priebus and White House strategist Steve Bannon.
“As soon as I got off the phone with that guy, I knew it was going to be like no other thing I had ever written,” Lizza said. “I’d never had a senior government official say such unusual things.”
Lizza added that he liked Scaramucci “quite a bit” but, even so, the phone conversation was “extremely newsworthy” given the threats, claims and insults Scaramucci said.
“I take no pleasure in someone being fired,” Lizza said.
Lizza said after his talk, which lasted about an hour, that it has been odd for him being so close to the spotlight because of his story about Scaramucci’s phone call.
“It’s a little uncomfortable,” he said, walking across COA’s Bar Harbor campus. “It’s just been a rollercoaster since that piece came out and just exploded.”
Lizza said that he does not think media coverage about the abrupt firings of Trump administration officials — which includes former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former FBI director James Comey — has been unfair. He noted that in 1993, after Bill Clinton had begun his first term as president, that there was a lot of similar coverage about the rapid comings and goings of Clinton appointees.
“But this is on a level that really is different,” Lizza said. “[Priebus] is the shortest non-interim chief of staff ever.”
Lizza also marveled at how big a role Twitter seems to be playing in some of the White House intrigue and upheaval.
Trump’s tendency to make news with his Tweets is well known, and Scaramucci’s phone call to Lizza was prompted by a tweet by Lizza about dinner guests at the White House. Scaramucci called Lizza to ask about the source of the information, but Lizza declined to reveal where he got it.
He said Scaramucci ended the phone call by saying “I have to go, I have to tweet some stuff to make this guy crazy” — a reference to Priebus.
“Ten years ago, if I had watched myself trying to explain all this, about tweeting and this and that, you would not have known what we were talking about.”
Lizza’s appearance at COA was the first of several planned as part of the 2017 Champlain Institute, a week-long series of public lectures and discussions at the college about the Constitution and the current national political climate.